BHOC: INCREDIBLE HULK #204

This was another book that came out of my drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics and was purchased by my brother Ken during his brief Hulk phase. This issue eventually wound up with me, as most all comics did. And this issue of HULK I genuinely enjoyed, its time travel story really grabbing me. It seems a bit simplistic in 2019, but at the time of publication, it was a corker of a tale.

The actual concept for the story came from Herb Trimpe, the Hulk’s long-time artist and a Marvel Bullpen mainstay. Herb didn’t do much out-and-out story plotting during his years at Marvel, certainly not on the Hulk, so this represented a rare foray on his part. And pretty cool, it was. Writer/Editor Len Wein added in the final copy and provided his usual splash of sentimentality to the proceedings. The Hulk was Len’s favorite Marvel character, and he clearly had a good handle on how to approach him, his run being one of the best during this era.

The story opens, as was typical back then, in action, as the Hulk contends with the forces of Hulkbuster Base. He’s only come back there because his love Jarella was brought there after suffering injuries in the preceding issue. The Hulk not being a patient sort, he doesn’t understand why Jarella is being kept in the “little room” for so long, and so he acts out, and the army has to subdue him. From here, we cut to Bruce banner watching footage of what just occurred while he’s made a pitch by the aptly-named Professor Kronus, who suggests that e may have a way to cure Banner of being the Hulk.

See, professor Kronus has constructed a Time Shuttle, and so what he proposes to do is to send banner back to that fateful day when he was exposed to the radiation of his exploding gamma bomb and was transformed into the Hulk–allowing him to keep his memories of what has transpired since. In effect, this will allow banner to alter the chain of events, preventing the accident which birthed his irradiated alter ego from ever happening. There’s a lot of basic cause-effect theory that’s glossed over in the story–best way to approach things is to assume that they all work as described and move on. (Kronus tells banner that, even if they fail the first time, they can keep on trying until they get it right–an assessment from a time-travel scientist that would make me immediately distrust his knowledge.)

True to Kronus’ word, banner finds himself back on that fateful day, playing out the events that led to the Hulk’s creation. But when teenager Rick Jones is spotted on the field within the blast radius, Banner heads out to get him, but this time he beckons to Rick from the safety of a partition. Rick dashes towards safety just as the massive device detonates–but he is a fraction of a second too late, and dies in the explosion. Banner is horrified by this outcome, knowing that he is now directly responsible for Rick’s death. But before anything further can happen, Banner finds himself yanked forward once more to the present.

Returning to the present, Banner finds the nature of the experiment he was involved in changed–here, Kronus was simply testing out his Time Shuttle. Nobody has any recollection of the Hulk, and Bruce is married to Betty Ross. Bruce’s guilt over Rick’s demise causes him to freak out and to be sedated in the infirmary. Here, in what is clearly both a stall to fill pages and an excuse to get some more action into the book, a delusional Banner dreams that he’s being attacked by professor Kronus kitted up as a super-villain. This evil Kronus turns Bruce back into the Hulk for really no reason other than to allow the two men to battle it out for a few pages. In his dream, the Hulk kills Kronus–but when his helmet is removed, it’s Rick Jones’ lifeless face that is looking back from within it.

Awakening from his nightmare, Banner plows past Betty on his way to the Time Shuttle. intent on fixing his mistake. He returns once more to ground zero and allows events to play out as they would naturally. Then, history restored, he returns to the present to tell Professor Kronus that his attempt was a failure. Even as a kid, I thought that Banner would more naturally try something else on this second pass-through of the past, that him simply resigning himself to his fate felt a bit too pat. Still, there were only so many pages in the issue to play with, and we were going to wind up with the Hulk back no matter what, so in the end the point is a bit moot.

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